The College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences awarded Jonathan Blake with the 2019 Alumni Achievement Award. In his awardee lecture to students and faculty during Homecoming week, entitled “A Risk Manager’s Guide to a Faith Journey,” Blake blended his expertise in actuarial science with his trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of his remarks, he joked, “How do you tell an introverted actuary from an extroverted actuary? The extroverted actuary looks at your shoes when he’s talking to you.” Blake may be vice president and lead actuary at The Hanover Insurance Group, but he is not above self-deprecating actuary humor. But, in a more serious tone, he later added, “My goal and objective here today is to express my belief in God and instill some spark in you as well,” Blake said. Blake, who graduated magna cum laude with a B.S. and M.S in statistics, focused his remarks on why believing in Jesus Christ and living the gospel of Jesus Christ is a worthwhile risk to take.
Blake framed his remarks through his personal lens—a professional risk-taker on a faith journey. He explained that as an actuary, his job is to manage risk. Blake uses mathematics to compile and analyze statistics in order to calculate insurance premiums and risks. He discussed the way actuaries have to make choices not only about small-scale, individual risks, but how they also have to take global risks such as climate change into consideration.
Blake explained, “That’s one of the exciting things in my profession—that there are different risks. It’s an exciting time to size the risk, manage it, and come up with new and creative ways to deal with it.” Businesses get in trouble, Blake said, when they don’t anticipate new risks that accompany the shifting landscape of retail, consumerism, and liability. “Good risk management and good insurance practice is about spreading the risk, diversifying the risk, mitigating the risk, eliminating the risk—or, at best, avoiding the risk,” Blake explained.
Blake noted that those who take a risk and embark on a faith journey by choosing to believe in God, confront a dilemma: believers are expected to go all in with their belief in God, even though the consequences of believing in God are uncertain. “A belief in God can feel like a high-stakes game sometimes when you don’t have all the answers,” Blake explained.
To illustrate his point, Blake introduced Pascal’s wager. A philosophical argument crafted by Blaise Pascal in the 1600s, the wager suggests that when a person chooses to believe in God, he or she is betting on something that only has a 50% chance of being true. The wager claims that humans bet with their lives on either believing in God or not believing in God. If a person does not believe in God and God exists, then he or she will be eternally damned. However, if a person believes in God and God does not exist, then nothing happens—the person does not get eternal life. The table below illustrates the four different possibilities for believing, or not believing, in God.
Some actuaries, who personally and professionally value eliminating risk, might say that believing in God is not worthwhile because there is only a 25% chance that believing in Him will yield a positive result. However, the gospel of Jesus Christ commands disciples to go all in—to believe in God with all their “heart, might, mind, and strength” (Doctrine and Covenants 4:2). Disciples are asked to believe in God despite the chance that God may not exist.
“As a risk manager, this notion of going all in with what appears to be a 50/50 bet makes me shudder. How can we do that?” he asked. Blake submitted that faith journeys, unlike decisions for managing risks, begin by taking small steps. He continued, “Having faith can be a hard thing and being on a faith journey can be a hard thing, but I think it all starts with the simple concepts and the simple beliefs.”
Blake offered four practices that can help people progress on their personal faith journeys: (1) expressing gratitude, (2) being obedient, (3) reading the Book of Mormon, and (4) serving others. He explained that following these four suggestions will promote faith building, but is not meant to be “the recipe for a quick fix or a simple solution.”
1. Expressing Gratitude
First, Blake noted that whenever he feels a spiritual malaise coming on, he makes a concerted effort to focus on gratitude. “Whenever you lead with gratitude, nothing can really go wrong,” Blake said. He encouraged students to find a personal, daily ritual of gratitude. A gratitude ritual could be writing in a journal, meditating, or praying with gratitude. Blake emphasized that it doesn’t matter what type of gratitude ritual people choose to engage in as long as they try to do something that helps them feel grateful.
2. Being Obedient
Blake’s second piece of counsel was to be obedient. “Now, I confess,” he said, “whenever obedience is brought up, I either shudder or I bristle. I wish I could just do what I want to do. But what I’ve found and experienced in my life is that if we’re more obedient, then peace can come.”
He then referenced the ongoing longitudinal study on adult development , the longest study that has ever been done as an example of the importance of obedience.1 Harvard University began studying a group of undergraduates in 1938. Researchers followed the students throughout their lives and have continued the study by including the original participants’ children and grandchildren.² Harvard’s study found that the participants who disciplined themselves and abstained from abusing alcohol tended to be happier, more secure in their relationships, and healthier as they aged than the participants who did abuse alcohol.³ Blake connected this finding to the counsel of the Word of Wisdom (see Doctrine and Covenants 89). He explained that keeping simple commandments can lead to happiness and safety.
3. Reading the Book of Mormon
Third, Blake advocated that people need to take the time to immerse themselves in the scriptures–especially the Book of Mormon. When his children were growing up (they are all college-aged or older now), one of his young sons got into an argument with Blake’s wife. When his wife went into her bedroom, she found a copy of the Book of Mormon laying on the bed. Inside the book she found a note from her son which said: “Read this. It will make you nicer.” Although he shared the story as a funny anecdote, he pulled a principle from his son’s potentially less-than compassionate words. “I endorse reading the Book of Mormon,” he said. “It will help you be nicer.”
4. Serving Others
Fourth, Blake emphasized service. He again referenced the Harvard study, which also showed that those who strive to be altruistic were happier throughout their lives.⁴ According to Robert Waldinger, the study’s fourth director, “It’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”⁵ Providing service is one way to cultivate those lasting relationships.
Blake then revealed that this is not the first time we as fellow sojourners have made strong and safe bets in God. “I’m going to let you all in on a little secret,” he said. “It’s not really a secret because you all know it. But I believe the reason we’re all here together is because prior to coming to this world, we actually did go all in.” Blake was referring to the premortal existence, which is the belief that people lived as spirits before they existed as humans in mortal bodies on Earth according to the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church’s website states, “Those who followed Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ were permitted to come to the earth to experience mortality and progress toward eternal life.”⁶
Blake pointed out that “the greatest risk-taker of all eternity, even our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, went all in on us and was with us when we decided to go all in and come here.” He testified that everyone who trusts Jesus Christ can overcome all of the difficulties in their lives. Blake believes making the four practices he discussed a priority in our daily lives will enable every disciple of Jesus Christ to know that they made a safe bet when they chose to believe in God as they travel along their own faith journey. That sounds like odds we can bank on.
1. George E. Vaillant, Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003), 4.
2. “Second Generation Study,” Harvard Second Generation Study.,Harvard Medical School, n.d., https://www.adultdevelopmentstudy.org/.
3. Vaillant, Aging Well, 13, 216-217. The study defines alcohol abuse as “the evidence of multiple alcohol related problems (with spouse, family, employer, law, or health) and/or evidence of alcohol dependence (207).
4. Vaillant, Aging Well, 69.
5. Daryl Chen. “4 Lessons from the Longest-Running Study on Happiness,” ideas.ted.com. April 12, 2017. https://ideas.ted.com/4-lessons-from-the-longest-running-study-on-happiness/.
6. “Premortality,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, n.d., https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/premortality?lang=eng